Talking dogs and ghosts may seem far-fetched, but they’re part of a carefully balanced system that makes Scooby-Doo the pinnacle of guest-star TV. The Scooby-Doo multiverse is one so complicated that hashing out its connectivity, or even its timeline, is a huge undertaking, but its overwhelming menagerie of comedians, superheroes, musicians, and wrestlers is actually complementary to the show’s incongruously stable format. That’s how we came to the latest in Scooby’s crossover continuum. In last week’s episode of Supernatural, titled “Scoobynatural,” brothers Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester, along with angel/human/guy that won’t stay dead Castiel (Misha Collins), got sucked into a cursed TV—because as Don Knotts, Sonny & Cher, and Dick Van Dyke found out, what is Scooby-Doo if not the bridge between the real world and the televised one?
Just as so many stars got their starts with one-off appearances on Law & Order or soap opera arcs, the simple format of Scooby-Doo lends itself to guests. With shows that are predictable by design (even if that prediction is unpredictability, as in soap operas), audiences can relax and enjoy the characters.
Scooby and the gang operate in this tradition: Scooby-Doo is by-the-book TV procedural. A problem is introduced and solved in a single episode, with no extra information needed or desired on either side of the credits. Nobody’s trying too hard to figure out the mystery, and nobody needs to try at all to figure out the premise. A group of kids goes to a place, finds a monster, runs around, then unmasks said monster. Jinkies! Even for a kid-centric cartoon, it’s light lifting. Nothing carries over; there’s no baggage from last episode. The only thing that grows over the course of the show is Shaggy and Scooby’s appetite.
That’s perfect for a cartoon that has somehow become the Wheaties of the animated universe. Making an appearance on one of the show’s various iterations has the same prestige, and odd tinge of cross-branded capitalism, as athletes selling cereal. It only works in this way because it’s a world both explicitly cartoonish and soberingly realistic. Jaws disarticulate to swallow Dagwood-size sandwiches while supernatural villains are revealed to be simple fronts for financial exploitation. There might be plenty of slapstick and rubbery bodies, but (like The Wire’s cynical maelstrom), corrupt businessmen, landowners, and heirs form the entitled gentry behind the mysteries. These baddies toe the line between Hanna-Barbera and Goldman Sachs, which makes it all the more palatable when the guest stars are similarly crossed between realities.
That kind of thing started in the 1970s with The New Scooby-Doo Movies, which had a guest star every episode. This continued through the show’s many, many forms until the backlog of guests was a surreal phone book. Barney Rubble, Jabberjaw, and the Powerpuff Girls were just as home in the shows as real-life figures as disparate as Simple Plan, Smash Mouth, John Cena, Pamela Anderson, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Mike Piazza. That’s because, no matter how weird things get in Scooby-Doo, the twists inevitably boil down to unlikely realism. It’s the crux of Scooby’s narratives. Silliness and improbability is part of the show’s essence, so no guest star could ever be crazy enough to disrupt it. Even when joining Batman and Robin in “The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair,” the plot involved a crime as blasé as counterfeiting.
So when the Supernatural crew finds itself sucked into “A Night of Fright Is No Delight” (an actual episode from the very first season of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!), the guest stars aren’t what’s surprising. It’s the crime. It’s real. A real ghost is commiting real murder. Though there are still the silly sequences where the gang Benny Hills through doors or sneaks along while the ghost is right behind them, there’s darkness here, undermining the way the show always slips its guests in.
Since this is a Scooby-Doo episode of Supernatural and not the reverse, it means that the formal conventions err on the side of the latter’s complexity. Things aren’t as tidy as the cartoons would like, so the folks from the “real world” have to do some delicate tip-toeing around life’s hardships—otherwise the Scooby Gang might start to worry about going to Hell, as Daphne does in the middle of the episode. “Scoobynatural” exploits the audience’s understanding of the Scooby routine and its knowledge of a more mature crime procedural, then blends the two into a humorous exploration of what happens when guest stars go wrong. That is, until the Supernatural crew realizes it has to put in the work to keep the Scooby Gang pure and ignorant of the world’s supernatural evils (and all-too-real murders).
Doing so maintains the status quo that’s the hallmark of the cartoon’s procedural elements, returning things to normal—as if a group of teens hadn’t just witnessed several murders or a real ghost. Everything is retconned, including a moment in which one of the brothers calls back to former episodes of Scooby-Doo. This serialization of the show is just as much a breakdown of normal law and order as Shaggy breaking his arm or someone getting stabbed to death. So, yes, it’s gotta go, too.
At the end of the day, “Scoobynatural” is about the cartoon itself being haunted by otherworldly creatures, like how every episode with a guest star would fall apart if it was truly influenced by that outsider presence. In so doing, it makes an audience that grew up with Scooby and the gang appreciate how little effect their wide group of guests actually had on how the show operated—and how that’s the only way the show was able to sustain them. No matter what background a guest comes from—comedy, sports, or even actual supernatural crime-fighting— you go through the chases, the chattering teeth, and the eventual unmasking of a real estate crook. Such oddball plot contrivances are the true equalizers on TV, and they make Scooby-Doo the medium’s most egalitarian multiverse.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.